Summary: Jake the space marine goes on a mission to the distant world of Pandora, where he discovers the human military-industrial complex is going to crush the peace-loving native species. Jake must choose sides between the natives and his own people.
My thoughts: Will director James Cameron ever go back to making movies like "Aliens" and "The Terminator," those tightly-wound, energetic, and aggressive B movies that made him famous? Of course not, not now that his films "Titanic" and "Avatar" have made ten hillion jillion dollars. I admire the new technology he developed for "Avatar" and I admire that he put so much of his own money into a property that's not based on a trendy best-seller, or a comic book, or a TV show. The only pre-awareness "Avatar" had going for it 6 months ago was "from the director of 'Titanic,' from 12 years ago." The man is ambitious.
As for "Avatar" itself, it's a lot like the Pocahontas legend. It's no accident that its Captain John Smith-surrogate is named "Sergeant Jake Sully."
See, John Smith and Jake Sully have the same initials.
John Smith's initials are "J" and "S."
Jake Sully's initials are also "J" and "S."
"JS!" They're the same!
Am I being condescending? That's what it's like to watch "Avatar." The movie has very, very few things to say and rams them home again and again. And again, and again, and again. In this way, Cameron's "Avatar" reminded me what it was like to watch his previous film, "Titanic:" in the intervening years, I had forgotten what a droning, repetitive experience "Titanic" was. Like "Titanic," "Avatar" is technically amazing, but bloated, overlong, over-serious, and tries to cram wonder down your throat. Also, like "Titanic," James Horner has again scored the movie within an inch of its life, this time with nonstop "Lion King" drums and wailing.
You remember "Titanic," don't you? In which Kate and Leo ran around the ship for about 15 minutes for no other reason than to show us a whole lot of the ship? "Avatar" is the same way. Jake the marine and Blue Pocahontas go from jaw-dropping setting to jaw-dropping setting, pausing either long enough to be attacked by yet another monster or to spell out more on-the-nose dialogue. Like “Titanic,” vast swathes of "Avatar's" second act are devoted to a lifeless romance that’s had all the spontaneity suffocated out of it by FX.
(I couldn't help thinking how much better these exact same scenes were handled in "The New World." But, then again, "The New World" was a couple actors and a cameraman goofing around in the woods: it could be spontaneous and human.)
"Avatar" is a lot like "Titanic" in other ways. Instead of the hero being Jack, the hero is Jake. Instead of being poor, he doesn’t have the use of his legs. Instead of the boring one-dimensional villain being rich, the boring one-dimensional villain is a Marine. Stephen Lang ("Public Enemies," "The Men Who Stare at Goats") does the best he can with a villain who doesn’t just set fire to women and children but says really villainous things right afterwards, in case you’re a fucking dumbass.
Then again, what’s condescending to me might be subtle to someone else. And this is why I've had such a hard time writing film criticism lately. Whether you think a movie works or not (and "Avatar," with its billion-dollar-grosses, has apparently worked on a lot of people) often comes down to some variation of whether you feel the movie is being subtle or not. If it feels obvious, you feel condescended to and irritated; if it feels needless opaque, you get irritated. But what's subtle to one viewer could be crass and unsubtle to another because of experiences with life, literature, art, and other movies.
Anyway, it's during "Avatar's" romance that I specifically went from being interested, to being charitable, to just being annoyed. "Avatar" has the simplest "Nature Good, People Bad" eco-message imaginable. (To wit: Jake learns a lot about the natives, but, as is typical in dumber versions of the Pocahontas legend, the natives NEVER ONCE ask him "hey bro, what's your planet like?" because they're too perfect and in harmony with nature to display any curiosity about anything). Which is fine for a short film, but "Avatar" keeps driving home that one message, playing that one note, again and again and again, set to faux-profound music and imagery.
Are the effects groundbreaking? They're like "Lord of the Rings," but more detailed, with better digital eyelash rendering, I guess. I didn't see anything new in "Avatar," just more of the same cartoony CGI than I had ever seen before packed into one movie. The effect isn’t one of inventiveness but of greater expenditure. The 3D works better because everything is brighter than most 3D movies. But at nearly 3 hours I had more than enough. Trim "Avatar" to 106 minutes and I'd probably be recommending it. The planet Pandora's a neat place. Someone should make a movie there.
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